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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eros, Economics, and Analysts: Working Through Ahmed's Affective Economies

Sara Ahmed’s essay “Affective Economies” toes the ephemeral threshold between the ordinary and the fantastic. Ahmed returns to a previous reading of Marx as the first analyst of the symptom by analogizing affective intensities to the circulation of commodities. Signs are converted into affective intensities not because of a property that inheres to them, but due to the surplus of sticky associations they gain as an effect of the process of circulation.

Ahmed reads against the grain of traditional interpretations of emotions in arguing that it is the nonresidence of emotions that makes them binding. Emotions are not a positive presence that may be possessed or contained nor are they psychological dispositions that originate solely within the subject. She takes the Marxist analogy further through the concept of commodity fetishism. Just as commodities in their ‘objective’ form conceal the hidden histories of labor and exchanges within a capitalist economy, “feelings appear in objects or as objects with a life of their own, only by the concealment of their personal histories, of production and labors, and circulation and exchange” (120-1). The analogy she says breaks down without reference to the exchange value/use-value distinction. It is here where she aligns herself more closely to the psychoanalytic school of thought. (I think it’s interesting that in an essay about the materialization of borders, she both entrenches and breaks down the borders between disciplines and academic pedantry.) Psychoanalysis offers a method of understanding emotions in relation to the unconscious. She differs from a strictly Lacanian version of psychoanalysis because she views “the subject” within the affective economy as “simply one nodal point in the economy, rather than its origin and destination” (121). Lacan, according to Ahmed, on the other hand adopted a view in which the subject is the “settlement” (121) of the signifier. She indicates that this would lead one to conceive of affects as a positive presence. Rather she would see the unconscious as a lack of presence or “the failure to be present – that constitutes the relationality of subjects and objects (a relationality that works through the circulation of signs)” (121). The unconscious in this view is not an unconscious that is possessed by or contained within the contours of the subject, but represents the absence of such a possibility or the grappling with fixing or materializing those contours. Repression then operates not as a repression of a feeling but through the displacement of the idea that caused it. Understanding affect as a form or language of the unconscious that works through the process of differentiation and displacement allows her to analyze the associative or metonymic process of substitution that occurs in the slippage between the figures of the asylum seeker, the terrorist, and the criminal. These figures gain a calcified affective value, being associated primarily with the fear of loss, yet remain spectral in their ties to particular, physical manifestations. Through temporal and rhetorical juxtaposition the figures become substitutable for one another. 

The Australian Tampa crisis illustrates this point in a dramatic fashion. Here the red ship loomed on the horizon of the public's imagination as an object of terror, even though people were fundamentally unaware as to what the threat actually was. Since media coverage was restricted, the incessant barrage of the same image of the lone ship gained an intensity through its circulation. Lone Bertleson and Andrew Murphie analyze in detail the event in an essay titled "An Ethics of Everyday Infinities and Powers: Felix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain" in the Affect Theory Reader. The perception of the ship was anything but merely representational, all people had was the repetition of a singular image. Bertleson and Murphie  said that the ship 
becomes the mark, the possibility of a new event (a new virtual potential for things to happen differently), of a set of new physical territories (actual borders, detention centers, ship's decks, islands, bodies), and of a set of new existential territories (these include virtual potentials, physical places, new modes of living, new laws, new sign systems, discourses, rhetorics, new feelings and emotions, new powers to affect and be affected). In sum a new field of expression arises, a refrain that potentializes other refrains (142). 
Here the relationship between a singular image and the question of alignment is especially explicit. The crisis occurred during a time when a conservative government needed an issue to rally around to justify its recent increases in security policies. The ship offered a new opportunity for the possibility of redirecting affective investments into a highly mediatized figure of the asylum seeker. The asylum seekers were denied access because of the possibility that they had ties to Osama bin Laden and other terrorist organizations. Since it becomes increasingly difficult to mark or differentiate exactly what a good asylum seeker looks like, any potential stranger or alien can be metamorphosized into a 'bogeyman.

On this basis Ahmed is able to twist the typical distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear, since at least Aristotle, if not earlier, is often argued to be in reference to a particular object, whereas anxiety lacks a stable referent. Ahmed on the other hand contends that fear is often less a question of the approach of a particular object than an approach to a vaguely outlined object. The lack of a stable referent intensifies rather than diminishes fear. Fear evokes the ontological questions of security, vulnerability and the bordering of bodies and nations.

Ahmed writes:
My argument is not that there is a psychic economy of fear that then becomes social and collective: rather, the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective. It is the very failure of affect to be located in a subject or object that allows it to generate the surfaces of collective bodies (128).
Fear is first an impersonal affect, or the condition, and it is through the process of alignment that a subject establishes its borders. There is first a state of insecurity a la Dillon, and then the marking of dangers allows us to create ideas of security. Ahmed argues that it is the fear of the loss of an object that is more profound than the actual object of fear. For example we fear what an inauthentic asylum seeker would steal from us more so than an actual asylum seeker. We fear their supposed disruption to the traditional family values, economy, and stability of the nation more so than the actual threat posed by a person to us. We are not afraid of the black other because actually seeing them instill fear that is completely contained within this body, but because affects open up past histories of intense signs that are attached to the present figure. In this way fear affects “relation between the objects feared (rather than simply the relation between the subject and its objects)” (128). In this way too affects operate within an economy that implies a socialized and materialized totality of values or affects rather than simply a subjective state felt. To a certain extent fear is contained within particular figures, but this is only as a result of the histories and sticky association temporarily evoked in relation to this figure. It makes sense that these negative affects would be intensified by not being able to locate them. It is the inability to designate who is and is not a terrorist that gives terrorism its force as an idea. When one hears an alarm but does not know what it is referencing is more powerful of a feeling because one does not know how to act in relation to the alarm. The inability know, the absence of a referent, seems to be at the heart of the feeling in the first place.

I wonder what the flipside would like. It seems that Socrates makes a similar point about Love in The Symposium. Socrates takes Eros through a topsy-turvy turn. Rather than viewing Eros as the attempt to unify a particular person with their unique lost half, Eros is understood as a form of Beauty that can be seen in many things. In the traditional view love would end the second the chase is over, once the object of desire was obtained. Eros for Socrates can be embodied in multiple and many referents and it is in viewing Eros as an eternal form that allows for a more intense experience of connection. Acknowledgment of the fact that there are many things rather than a singular person that are worthy of love lets one truly bask in its glory. Yet it also entails an understanding that one cannot ever completely obtain the feeling of love. The lack is still omnipresent but it is in the act of detaching the affect from a particular object or subject that intensifies it and lets it circulate more freely. 

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